Sunday, June 26, 2016

The Secret Life of Resurgent Aliens

‘The Secret Life of Pets’ tells the story of how an unwanted rabbit, radicalised by a revolutionary dialectic, attempts to lead a sewer-based uprising but, haunted by the memories of fallen comrades, is driven to increasingly psychotic behaviour; how his mission is further compromised by the bumbling intervention of two temporary refugees from the bourgeoisie; and how, after a ruinous alliance with a group aligned to different priorities, he finally succumbs to the comforts of that which he professes to hate. This is, of course, disguised by the framing story of how a handful of mismatched but ultimately cute domesticated pets have an adventure as they cross the city in search of their missing friends, but those of us trained in analysing the subtext of U-rated animations will immediately realise what it's really about.

‘Independence Day: Resurgence’ tells the story of how some studio money-men basically recycled most of the iconic bits from the original but without replicating that film’s sense of gee-whiz entertainment, because hey it worked for ‘The Force Awakens’ so fuck you, audience, just hand over your hard-earned.

Ultimately, both films would have been immeasurably improved by being edited into a single entity wherein grudge-bearing aliens get their second twatting in twenty years, but this time by a rabbit with a hair-trigger temper and a love of pyrotechnics. It still wouldn’t have been as good ‘Zootroplis’, but meh.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Coming attractions

Gastone Moschin wants a word. He’s aware that it’s been small beer on The Agitation of the Mind recently. But he has bigger fish to fry than the one-a-week musings on the latest releases. Gastone wasn’t happy about last year’s Winter of Discontent. Four reviews. Four fucking reviews? Gastone advised your humble blogger that he had about three seconds to explain otherwise I’d be wearing the J&B instead of drinking it.

The facts of the matter are banal in the way that evil is always banal. I’d started last year’s Winter of Discontent – this blog’s annual celebration of all things exploitative, venal, cynical and sexually objectified – in high spirits. I had a whole slate of movies lined up. Then the coterie of Oxbridge entitled pig-fucking bully-boys otherwise known as the Conservative Party decided they wanted to bomb Syria. Because, hey, what better way to stem the immigrant (or, as I prefer to call them, refugees) crisis than to displace entire swathes of people? Rather than mounting an effective counter-vote, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour opposition schismed, the Blairites crawling out of the woodwork. Particularly galling was Hilary Benn, son of the legendary Tony Benn (the closest I have to a political hero) in support of military intervention. I’d been riding a high following the publication of ‘More Raw Material: work inspired by Alan Sillitoe’, an anthology of new writing I’d edited with David Sillitoe, and I came crashing down. I underwent a month-long depression. The only thing I could feel was abject despair.

I’m feeling a similar thing know, as my country teeters on the verge of a referendum as to whether to leave the European Union. The pound is already in freefall. Trade agreements with Europe and the checks and measures that the EU provides in terms of health and safety, workers’ rights, maternity leave and pay for working mothers, let alone any considerations of unity, multiculturalism and shared post-war heritage could easily be swept away in a tide of insular backwards-looking nationalism. I already live in a Britain where a one-time fringe party like UKIP has somehow managed not only to infiltrate the political mainstream but actually define the dialogue; where right-wing hate groups like Britain First and the EDL could easily follow in UKIP’s footsteps.

But whereas the UK’s shameful intervention re: Syria drove me away from B-movie gratuitousness, the referendum has got me thinking about cinematic representations of social and political dystopia. I now have three reviews for Winter of Discontent in the bag and a viewing list that will probably do no favours for my mental health. Whichever way the vote goes on Thursday, I think I can guarantee a Winter of Discontent that will be contentious, cantankerous, challenging and anything else you can think of that starts with “c”.

Except Conservative. Fucking anything but Conservative.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Bernstein's Mahler

It would be all to easy to describe ‘Bernstein’s Mahler’, directed by Humphrey Burton, as a two-hour greatest hits package: one movement apiece from each of Gustav Mahler’s symphonies, taken from concerts recorded between 1972 and 1977, with Leonard Bernstein conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (except for the ‘Resurrection’ Symphony, which is with the London Symphony Orchestra), and nothing in the way of commentary, discourse or interview footage.

Or, to put it in disgruntled Guardian-reader terms, you don’t even get a full symphony!

And there is, I’ll admit, a case to be made for the film as disappointing in this respect. By choosing not to feature interviews with Bernstein, we lose Lenny the teacher, Lenny the passionate advocate, in all his cerebral and loquacious glory. As anyone who has ever seen one of Bernstein’s musical guides, young persons’ concerts or introductions from the podium can attest, the man had a natural and charismatic gift for explaining; for educating.

What ‘Bernstein’s Mahler’ offers instead is a complete immersion in the music. Lenny “got” Mahler more empathetically, more intuitively, and more sensuously than any other conductor. Like Bernstein, Mahler had a greater reputation as conductor than composer in his lifetime; as composer he wasn’t necessarily given his dues by his contemporaries. Furthermore, Bernstein conducted as if he were composing the music himself – an approach that sometimes resulted in mercurial interpretations (his late recordings of Sibelius with the Vienna Phil proved notably controversial) but paid dividends with Mahler.

Filmed attentively as regards the positioning and interaction of the orchestra, the choice of movements from each symphony is more or less as one would anticipate: the opening movement of the First, the adagietto of the Fifth, the adagio of the Ninth. The ‘Resurrection’ – a monumental work clocking in at an hour and a half – is represented, ironically, by one of the shorter excerpts here: “O röschen rot”, performed in utterly sublime fashion by Janet Baker. Symphonies 8 (‘The Symphony of a Thousand’) and 9 get a far more expansive hearing, accounting for over 50 minutes of the running time between them.

It’s in the devastatingly poignant sweep of the Ninth’s adagio that Burton’s film truly comes into its own. His focus on the precision and importance of individual instruments is so detailed that ‘Bernstein’s Mahler’ can genuinely be called a documentary rather than a filmed concert. Moreover, Burton captures Bernstein’s complete emotional connection with the music. It goes beyond conducting. The best word I can find is transfiguration.

First in his passionate and emotive cycle on the CBS label with the New York Philharmonic, and later in the authoritative artistic statement with the VPO on Deutsche Grammophon, Bernstein gifted recorded music with accounts of the Mahler symphonies that remain unsurpassed. These two complete sets should be in every serious classical music lover’s collection. Burton’s film acts as both a distillation and a visualisation of them. The performances are faultless, and film as a whole captures large-scale symphonic music-making at its finest.

Saturday, June 04, 2016

Room 237

There are some strange people in this world, and five in particular conspire to waste an hour and three-quarters of the viewer’s life in ‘Room 237’. Directed by Rodney Ascher, the film (I hesitate to classify it as a documentary) purports to be “an investigation” into Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s seminal horror novel ‘The Shining’.

That’s “investigation” as in letting five total nutjobs witter on at tedious length, by the way. Ascher never really introduces us to said individuals, simply flashing their names up on screen in fairly quick succession as they expound their theories in voiceover. Only one contributor is female, and therefore easy to identify as the film progresses. The others are all male and slightly too eager and emphatic in their intonation, and after only a short while it becomes increasingly difficult to tell who’s blathering on at any one point. Matters aren’t helped by an appalling sound mix which allows the background music (most of it hideous) to swamp the voiceovers on more than one occasion.

But what of the theories on offer? Two basically posit ‘The Shining’ as a metaphor for something else: the massacre of the native American Indians, and the Holocaust. Respectively, a picture of an Indian chief on a food tin, and a German typewriter, the number 42 and some images of an eagle are offered as conclusively as Rumpole playing the evidential trump card that gets his client off. (The food tins were an actual brand popular in the hotel/catering industry at the time; the typewriter was Kubrick’s own.) The numbers of the titular haunted room if reckoned as 2 x 3 x 7 equal 42. Apparently, in one exterior shot there are 42 vehicles parked outside the Overlook. Some people have way too much free time on their hands.

Enough free time – as we segue to theory number 2 – to plot out maps of the Overlook’s interior and determine that the window in Ullman’s office couldn’t possibly have been there, that corridors don’t seem to lead where they should, and that the dimensions in The Gold Room’s bathroom don’t match said room’s architecture. Indeed, this particular contributor follows her architectural obsession with the hotel’s interior to an equally notable dead end: these are merely a series of observations and not even a theory. Moreover, they are observations that betray a total lack of understanding re: how films are made. It’s the mindset of someone who watches ‘The Wicker Man’ and goes gallivanting off to Scotland only to discover that Summerisle is actually a patchwork quilt of other locations.

Elsewhere, continuity errors are explicated as part of some grand design, when anybody who’s seen ‘The Shining’ more than twice knows that the film’s full of them. I was amazed that nobody tried to claim Danny’s half-eaten then mysteriously resurrected sandwich in the scene where he tells Wendy about Tony as proof of something obscure and enigmatic.

The best – by which I mean maddest – theory is that Stanley Kubrick faked the moon landings and made ‘The Shining’ as an act of admission. A morass of detail is piled up to make the case, all of it patently nonsensical.

If ‘Room 237’ has any worth at all – it’s sloppily put together, with dozens of film clips assembled randomly, many of which have nothing to do with Kubrick, King or ‘The Shining’; it neither champions or challenges its contributors; and fails to make any particular point or arrive at a conclusion – it’s as a corollary to Jack Torrance’s splintered mental state. To watch ‘The Shining’ is to watch a man lose hold on his sanity; to watch ‘Room 237’ is to listen to five people slide deeper into their shared obsession.

At its most worrying moments, ‘Room 237’ reminds us that some of its contributors are academics and researchers, people who should be smarter than this; who ought to be contributing to a greater cultural understanding. But then again, based purely on listening to their monologues, they’re worryingly reminiscent of the most boring and socially ill-equipped person at the party – the one who hones in on you and won’t take the hint that you have no interest in their clingy behaviour and inability to close their mouth.

At its best, though, it offers up some hilarious examples of tunnel-vision. The moon conspiracy dude points to a key fob for “ROOM No 237”, discounts the lower case “o” as it’s a truncation of the word “number” and states with utter conviction that “there are only two words you can make from the remaining letters – room and moon. This is where the cover-up happened. This is the moon-room.” From the letters R, O, O, M and N, you can make at least a dozen other words, including “norm”.

Does this mean, then, that the central clue, buried by Kubrick deep in the fabric of his film, is that the answer to ‘The Shining’ is completely normal? That it is, in fact, about a haunted hotel? In much the same way that the novel it’s based on is about a haunted hotel? You know what, folks? I rather think it is.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

X-Men: Apocalypse

The accepted critical thinking on ‘X-Men: Apocalypse’ is that:

1. It’s the same old “battle for Erik Lenscherr’s soul” story pace ‘First Class’ and ‘Days of Future Past’;

2. The Auschwitz bit is really tasteless;

3. The Quicksilver set piece is merely a reprise of the one in ‘Days of Future Past’;

4. Too many characters are thrust into one movie without development;

5. The finale is sprawling and incoherent.

Maybe I saw a totally different cut of the film, but I enjoyed the hell out of ‘X-Men: Apocalypse’. Granted, it might not have the sharp stylishness of ‘First Class’ (which I still regard as a Bond movie with mutants) or the timeline-jinking audacity of ‘Days of Future Past (which I still consider a horribly clunky title); nor is it as keyed into its period setting as those two. But it develops the themes of family, mistrust, politics and absolute power present in the preceding instalments; it brings Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) and Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) into the new timeline in fine style; and it turns its mutants vs. mutants storyline into a commentary on political manipulation, menticide and man’s inhumanity to man. In this respect, just as ‘Days of Future Past’ earned itself major kudos for obliterating the fuck-awful ‘Last Stand’ from the chronology, ‘Apocalypse’ assimilates everything ‘Last Stand’ tries to be and does the job properly.

Only the mainstream reviewers would have you think otherwise, so in lieu of the more traditional Agitation review, let’s have a look at that quintet of critical carping and subject each item to a validity test:

1. The Professor X (James McAvoy)/Magneto (Michael Fassbender) conflict is the dynamic upon which the franchise is founded. It’s like Bond/Blofeld or Batman/the Joker, and for my money the new X-Men timeline ups the ante on the conflict by grounding it not in the differences between Professor X and Magneto but the battered and compromised but still salvageable friendship between Charles and Erik. Throwing all of that away just to have Magneto as an all-purpose villain would be akin to flushing the crux of the franchise’s human drama down the shitter;

2. Yes it is, but this is the third film that explicitly references Auschwitz and (a) the sequence is shorter than in ‘X-Men’ or ‘First Class’; (b) nobody carped about using the Final Solution as a plot device in those two films; and (c) it’s where Magneto’s powers and his anger were forged so of course it’s where Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac) would take Magneto to ensure his complicity;

3. Quicksilver (Evan Peters) having a big set piece where time seems to slow down as he casually moves people and objects across a spatially intense chess board is basically what Quicksilver fucking does and having him in the movie and not giving him that moment would be like having Blofeld in a Bond movie and not giving him a crack at world domination, or not letting Inspector Morse have a pint while he listens to some Wagner. Or not letting Inspector Regan clobber a suspect. Or not letting Scottie beam anybody up. You’d be missing the fucking point. Besides, the context, logistics and outcome of Quicksilver’s race against time are drastically different from ‘Days of Future Past’.

4. True to a degree, with Storm (Alexandra Shipp) locked into a narrative arc requiring a last reel volte face that never quite seems earned and Psylocke (Olivia Munn) given some visually iconic moments but criminally underused; but the same can be said of ‘Captain America: Civil War’ and again nobody seemed to complain about the overstuffed and – let’s be honest – unsuspenseful airport showdown.

5. No more so than any finale in any superhero movie ever. In fact, it didn’t seem to drag on anywhere near as long as the ‘Hulk’ finale (in which I zoned out as two screensavers threw ever larger objects at which other), the ‘Age of Ultron’ slugfest or the double denouement of ‘Batman vs Superman’. In fact, I’d say that ‘Apocalypse’ is the paciest of this year’s triptych of two-and-a-half hour comic book adaptations. (Assuming that neither ‘Suicide Squad’ or ‘Doctor Strange’ will be grasping for such epic running times.)

In addition to the above, factor in Jennifer Lawrence finally making Mystique her own, stepping out of the shadows of both Magneto in terms of the character and Rebecca Romjin-Stamos in terms of performance; Fassbender nailing a squirmily inevitable moment where Magneto, trying to live a normal life, is pushed back onto a vengeful and destructive path; a Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) cameo that gives us the character as a vessel of pure animalistic rage; CGI that serves the story rather than swamping it; and a genuinely chilling scene, scored to the second movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, where Apocalypse prompts a simultaneous launch into space of all nuclear missiles.

All things considered, it’s only the foul-mouthed and fourth-wall-breaking loveability of ‘Deadpool’ that’s stopping me from proclaiming this as the best superhero movie of the year. Sorry, Cap.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Our Kind of Traitor

John le Carré hasn’t done badly in terms of his work being adapted. Unlike, say, James Ellroy who has one classic (‘L.A. Confidential’), one damn good film (‘Cop’, a fairly loose take on his early novel ‘Blood on the Moon’) and two total misfires (‘Brown’s Requiem’ and ‘The Black Dahlia’). Or Len Deighton, who has the first two Harry Palmer films (‘The Ipcress File’ and ‘Funeral in Berlin’) and the TV adaptation ‘Game, Set and Match’ to be proud of, and terrible versions of ‘Spy Story’ and ‘Only When I Larf’ (itself a particularly weak novel).

Le Carré, however, has three bona fide classic big screen treatments: ‘The Spy Who Came in from the Cold’, ‘The Constant Gardener’ and ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’, and four pitch-perfect serials for television: ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’, ‘Smiley’s People’, ‘A Perfect Spy’ and ‘The Night Manager’. Even the second division of le Carré adaptations – ‘The Looking Glass War’, ‘The Little Drummer Girl’, ‘The Tailor of Panama’, ‘A Most Wanted Man’ – are only second division because of just how damned good the top tier titles are. In fact, there’s only really Fred Schepisi’s misjudged take on ‘The Russia House’ and a couple of pedestrian adaptation of the early novels that let the side down.

‘Our Kind of Traitor’ slots solidly into this second tier, and it’s a damned shame because it could so easily have been a masterpiece. The plot – Russian mafia; money-laundering; political corruption; banking as the legitimate face of multi-billion pound criminality – is as timely as when the novel was published six years ago. The script was by Hossein Amini, a confident adapter of literary works (‘The Wings of the Dove’, ‘The Four Feathers’, ‘The Two Faces of January’). The cast is a publicist’s dream: Ewan McGregor, Stellan Skarsgård, Damian Lewis and Naomi Harris.

The problems start with the choice of director. Susanna White has notched up an impressive small screen CV, helming episodes of ‘Boardwalk Empire’, ‘Masters of Sex’ and ‘Billions’, but directing for TV and directing for film are vastly different disciplines, and White’s only other big screen outing was ‘Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang’. Not exactly a showreel for a dark, cynical espionage drama. And speaking of showreels, Anthony Dod Mantle’s cinematography is visual attention-seeking at its worst, all surface sheen and artsy fascination with reflection and distortion – which might have suited one of le Carré’s Cold War opuses but just gets in the way here. ‘Our Kind of Traitor’ is concerned with massive levels of corruption, ruthless oligarchies and the human cost of a family at risk. The film cries out for focus, for precisely rendered details, for a foregrounding of fieldcraft and an absolute exposition of what’s at stake. Instead, Dod Mantle assembles what increasingly looks like a “for your consideration” Oscar campaign.

Amini’s script finds a narrative throughline which belies the complexities of le Carré’s novel – no mean feat: there’s a reason why his books often lend themselves better to the long form of a television series – but his flair for nuance and the human element needs to be underpinned by a sense of urgency for the story to work, and neither the direction or editing provide this. Case in point: late in the game, a number of characters find themselves holed up in a safe house in the middle of nowhere; one of them makes an ill-advised decision which leads a team of assassins to their location. The resulting shoot out is filtered through the perspective of someone who’s holding a gun for the first time, hiding in a cellar, and torn between staying put or going outside, protecting his charges or determining whether those charged with protecting him are even still in the game. His cognizance of what is happening boils down to offscreen gunshots, heavily suggestive silences and occasional voices in a foreign language. The scene should be razor-wire tense; sweatily claustrophobic. Done by Hitchcock, or Argento at his best, it would be nerve-shredding; almost unbearable. Hell, Tarantino pulled this kind of thing off with aplomb in the opening section of ‘Inglourious Basterds’. In the hands of White and her two editors, it’s merely ho-hum.

Fortunately, White seems to invest more in her direction of actors. Granted, McGregor is one of those performers who does one specific thing very well – in his case, a boyish, slightly sheepish persona – but that one thing suits the character well enough. Harris takes an underwritten role and emerges with a fully rounded performance – she really is one of the best actresses around at the moment and mainstream cinema still hasn’t woken up to that fact. Lewis makes the wise decision to understate, playing his scheming spymaster as a man who has spent his entire career wearing a poker face. Even in two slightly out-of-character scenes – an impassioned plea to his governmental bosses who would rather he didn’t pursue one particular lead any further; and a deliberate taunt to a long-standing nemesis – the emotional imperative behind his machinations only barely shows. In fact, Lewis risks appearing bland in his characterisation and it’s perhaps not till the very last scene that his gamble plays off.

Skarsgård aces it as mob accountant Dima, a man whose time is running out as a new cabal of oligarchs viciously dispose of all traces of the old guard in order to present a shiny new vision of capitalist Russia for the benefit of UK investors. It’s a deliberately big, rambunctious performance, Dima stomping across the screen like a bear of a man, his body language a symphony in expressive gestures, his colloquy making poetry of the vulgar. Then, incrementally, Skarsgård reveals the cracks in the mask, the fear behind the flamboyance, the desperation to survive and to protect his family. It should be no surprise to anyone that Skarsgård is this good – but the real surprise that ‘Our Kind of Traitor’ has up its sleeve is Saskia Reeves as his long-suffering but nobly stoic wife: a nothing role on paper – indeed, virtually wordless – but one that she imbues with a humanity that is at the same time rigidly unsentimental and utterly poignant. Every time she’s on screen, it’s a searing glimpse of the masterpiece the film could have been.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Captain America: Civil War

With massive tentpole movies locked into extremely specific release dates way ahead of their actual releases, 2016 was always going to be the Summer of Superheroes Twatting Other Superheroes: ‘Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice’, ‘Captain America: Civil War’, ‘X-Men: Apocalypse’. Hell, let’s call it Summer of the Semi-Colon by way of an alias.

‘B vs S’ was first out of the traps and got the kind of critical drubbing last seen aimed at ‘The Lone Ranger’ (and like that movie, ‘B vs S’ – while no classic – turned out better than anyone gave it credit for), and ‘X-Men: Apocalypse’, which opens in the UK tomorrow, is already being submerged by a wave of negative reviews.

‘Captain America: Civil War’ was always going to emerge victorious. Unlike the rushed attempt to springboard a two-part Justice League movie after just ‘Man of Steel’ and ‘B vs S’, and unlike the all-of-the-place quality control of the ‘X-Men’ franchise and the narrative shell-game of the timelines (Deadpool’s piss-taking line in his own magnificently meta solo movie is a spot-on bit of parody), Marvel have developed their stable of icons and villains over a decade and a dozen movies. Nothing in ‘Civil War’ feels rushed or shoe-horned in. The MCU’s timelines and nexus points have been so carefully mapped out that ‘Civil War’ variously functions as: the conclusion to the Steve Rogers/Bucky Barnes arc that links ‘The First Avenger’ and ‘Winter Soldier’; a de facto ‘Age of Ultron’ sequel (only sans Hulk and Thor); a passing on of the baton from Peggy Carter to Sharon Carter (a.k.a. Agent 13 – and kudos to all concerned for giving Emily Vancamp more to do this time round); ‘Iron Man 4: Let’s Give Tony Stark’s Ego Another Kicking’; a showreel for ‘Black Panther’; and a teaser trailer for ‘Spider-Man: Hey, Kids, We’ve Got the Rights Back and This Time it Won’t be an Andrew Garfield Suck-Fest, Honest’.

In other words, there’s a lot going on in ‘Civil War’. The opening mini-movie (redolent of a James Bond pre-credits adventure) has the team intercepting some desperados out to get their filthy paws on a biological weapon. One of these desperados is Crossbones (Frank Grillo), Cap (Chris Evans)’s second division nemesis from ‘Winter Soldier’, and he almost gets the drop on our square-jawed hero. Enter Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), who takes care of business but at the cost of an entire building and some civilian casualties.

This debacle coming so soon after the city-wide destruction of ‘Age of Ultron’, the Avengers are hauled up before a committee (making ‘Civil War’ the second major superhero movie, after ‘B vs S’, to steal a plot point from ‘The Incredibles’) and it is impressed upon them that if they want to continue saving the world, they’d better agree to some checks and measure PDQ. Because nothing says “thank you for saving the world” more than grey-suited bureaucracy.

At this point, ‘Civil War’ makes the first of a couple of wobbles – neither are franchise-disruptingly serious, but they’re still annoying. Cap’s reticence to accede to the whims of politicians is understandable given the political conspiracy shenanigans he got caught up in the middle of in ‘Winter Soldier’. However, Stark (Robert Downey Jnr)’s volte face from supremely arrogant twat who was basically the architect of everything bad that happened in ‘Age of Ultron’ to bleeding-heart/survivor’s-guilt-orphan-boy/ascendee-to-moral-high-ground comes off as a character arc too far; it’s founded on just one scene – and no matter how good Alfre Woodward is as the voice of conscience, I just don’t buy Stark’s tunnel-vision Messianic certainty crumbling based on just this one encounter. Indeed, something happens to War Machine (Don Cheadle) late in the game that, if the scripters had found a way to stage it at the outset, would have pushed Stark down the required narrative avenue a lot of convincingly.

The fact remains, though, that this is ‘Cap vs Iron Man’ and the conflict needed to be established pretty quickly. It’s compounded, effectively enough, by a bombing that disrupts the signing of the accord and for which one B. Barnes Esq is in the frame. Only Cap won’t give up on his old buddy and goes rogue in order to find out the truth of the matter. This section, Cap teaming up with Sharon Carter (and a potential romance simmering away), while one B. Panther Esq (the effortlessly charismatic Chadwick Boseman – bring on the guy’s solo movie) stalks Bucky, is easily the best part of the film.

Soon enough, though, loyalties are tested and sides are taken and it’s time for the big airport smackdown – and ‘Civil War’ takes its second wobble. The sequence is a grandslam piece of showboating which is (a) utterly devoid of narrative tension – after all, Helmut Zemo (Daniel Bruhl) has been plotting away in the background so it’s no surprise that Bucky will turn out to be innocent(ish) and the revelations about the real villain of the piece reserved for the final act; and (b) simply too top heavy. If ‘Civil War’ is one green monster from the id and one Nordic god short of being an actual Avengers film, then it overcompensates for their absence by throwing everyone else into the mix. When the warring factions square off against each for fifteen minutes of action, a few sardonically humorous character beats and about a gazillion dollars of special effects, the viewer is presented with – on screen at the same time – Captain America, Iron Man, Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson, shockingly short-changed by the script), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Vision (Paul Bettany), Scarlet Witch, War Machine, Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Ant Man (Paul Rudd), Spider-Man (Tom Holland), Bucky Barnes and Black Panther. That’s twelve iconic characters having a brawl. For fifteen minutes. During which Ant Man makes buses and planes and even himself very small and/or very big. For the most part, the scene is fast, frothy and funny (“are we still friends?” as former partners trade punches; Spider-Man being reminded that fighting doesn’t usually involve so much talk), but it never escapes the fact that it’s so top-heavy the bottom of the screen practically screams for an RSJ to shore it up.

Thankfully, the film continues for another half hour and gets its groove back on (mostly: there’s one horrible moment that’s written in purely to stoke up Stark’s hatred for Bucky, and the way it’s incorporated sucks donkey balls), moving towards a finale that doesn’t actually require entire postcode areas to get blown up or mansion-sized gunships drop from the sky.

As ‘Winter Soldier’ debated the legitimacy of control, ‘Civil War’ questions what happens with it. The script stacks things in a certain someone’s favour, and does so in such a way as to absolve them of any and all thorny j’accuses. There’s a similar sense of cop-out as regards the politics of piece, which don’t make a lot of sense when you subject them to even the slightest critical scrutiny. Nonetheless, when it does work, it works brilliantly. Its best moments are, by turns, exciting, flamboyant and intense. ‘Civil War’ is, like the previous Captain America films, a superhero movie that’s actually about something; and it gets to play around with big themes without hunkering down in a mire of crushing joylessness a la ‘B vs S’.

The thorn in its side – arguably the thorn in every other superhero movie’s side – is ‘Deadpool’. In a way that no example of its ilk has done in recent years (bar, notably, ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’), ‘Deadpool’ allowed the superhero movie to be fun: big, dumb, adult-orientated fun. How the next slate of Marvel offerings shape up remains to be seen, likewise whether ‘X-Men: Apocalypse’ is as bad as early reviews suggest. But it could be that ‘Deadpool’ was either the death knell or the wake up call for the superhero genre. They say that a week is a long time in politics, and we’ve still got a ways to go until ‘The Infinity Wars’.